04 September 2022

Kingdom against kingdom.

Mk 13.8, Mt 24.7-8, Lk 21.10-11.

“Wait, you already did this text.” Some of it, yeah. Not all. I’m kinda going line by line through it. Last time was about “nations,” i.e. ethnic groups. Today’s about kingdoms.

And while the word “nation” in most bibles is more accurately translated “ethnic group,” the word “kingdom” comes from the Greek word βασιλεία/vasileía, meaning “the domain of a king.” In short, kingdom. It’s an accurate translation.

Lemme quote Jesus in the scriptures again.

Mark 13.8 KWL
“For ethnic group will be pitted against ethnic group,
and kingdom against kingdom.
Quakes will happen various places.
Scarcity will happen.
These are first birth pangs.”
Matthew 24.7-8 KWL
7 “For ethnic group will be pitted against ethnic group,
and kingdom against kingdom.
Quakes and scarcity will happen various places.
8 All these are first birth pangs.”
Luke 21.10-11 KWL
10 Then Jesus told them,
“Ethnic group will be pitted against ethnic group,
and kingdom against kingdom.
11 Both great quakes and scarcity in various places,
and plagues will happen.
Both terrifying events
and signs from heaven will happen.”

I tend to structure Jesus’s words as poetry, because that is how he talks when he teaches people; he does it on purpose to make his teachings more memorable. He’s doing the Hebrew poetry thing where one repeats ideas, or builds off previous ideas. “This against that” in line 1; “another thing against yet another thing” in line 2. Ethnic fighting, then kingdoms fighting.

Again, Jesus is not listing the “signs of the times.” He makes this clear, even though many an End Times prognosticator totally ignores Jesus and claims these things are indicators—really clear ones!—that the End Times are upon us, and the great tribulation is near. These are the normal activities you’re gonna see in our fallen world. Humans are gonna be awful to one another, and both natural and manmade disasters are gonna happen. They don’t mean it’s the End. This is life. And life is suffering.

When Jesus says “Ethnic group will be pitted against ethnic group” in line 1, he doesn’t supply a verb in line 2; in all three synoptic gospels it’s βασιλεία ἐπὶ βασιλείαν/vasileía epí vasileían, “kingdom against kingdom.” He means for us to borrow the verb from line 1, ἐγερθήσεται/eyerthísete, “it’ll be raised up [against],” meaning somebody else is gonna provoke these ethnic groups and kingdoms to fight. You can speculate it’s the devil, and End Times prognosticators will speculate it’s the Beast. Me, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if this is the result of humans trying to manipulate other humans for profit and power. It’s what we do.

Kings, their kingdoms, and their wars.

In the United States, we haven’t lived under a king for a mighty long time… and when we did, before we declared our independence from him, George William Frederick Hanover (i.e. King George 3 of the United Kingdom) was a profoundly atypical king. He didn’t rule his country; the English Parliament did, as established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Parliament acted in Hanover’s name, but frequently against Hanover’s will. The king, and all British kings and queens since 1688, are merely Parliament’s rubber stamp. That’s not how kings have historically reigned.

Yeah, Christians will point out Christ Jesus is king. Christ/Messiah is the title of Israel’s kings, after all. But Jesus is even more profoundly atypical. Yes, he’s how kings absolutely should behave. But they don’t, and using Jesus to describe ’em is gonna give us the wrong idea.

The closest we have to kings these days, are the kings of absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia, the presidents-for-life of Russia, or the dictators and military rulers of civil-war-torn countries. They’re not figureheads, like European kings and queens today; nor limited by constitutions and parliaments. They have absolute power over everything and everyone in their country. There’s no separation of powers; the king is the lawmaker, executive, and supreme court, all in one person. The people aren’t citizens, but subjects. Serfs. The king’s property, to do with as he pleases, same as a farmer with his chickens.

Historically, kings have been awful to their subjects. At best, they were hands-off (usually preoccupied with other stuff, like religion and hobbies and wars) and left their people to largely govern themselves. At worst, they reveled in their power, and used it to entertain themselves at the people’s expense or harm; or they feared anyone who might seize their power, and killed everyone they suspected. Rarely would you see a benevolent king in history. Power corrupts.

Just like Samuel warned the Israelis:

1 Samuel 8.11-18 NRSV
11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots, 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves and the best of your cattle and donkeys and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And on that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you on that day.”

Any time you see a good king in popular movies and fiction, remember you’re watching fiction. Apart from Jesus, the best king in the bible was David ben Jesse; he’s the guy every other king gets compared to. And David was a lousy father, who cuckolded and murdered one of his soldiers. Unlike his successors, he didn’t try to murder the prophet who called him on it; he actually repented… although he did keep the soldier’s wife, and Jesus is their descendant. Jesus is light years better than David, but as you can see, David was far from perfect. Kings suck.

Which is why we Americans replaced ’em with Congress, presidents, Supreme Courts, and state-level versions of these things. And they suck. Now, imagine all these powers vested in one corrupt person, who doesn’t bother to follow his own laws if he doesn’t wanna, who treats his subjects like cattle, whose only qualification is his daddy was king, and you won’t be rid of him until he dies or is overthrown. I don’t blame the French at all for guillotining their last king. I think it’s absolutely gracious of every country who deposed their kings and emperors and didn’t string ’em up by their own intestines.

And God forbid these guys ever got ambitious. It didn’t mean they’d make improvements, however superficial, to their own kingdoms, like they should. It meant they’d try to enlarge their territory… by seizing land from their neighboring kingdoms. Like Vladimir Putin of Russia, who’s trying to take Ukraine piece by piece, they’d find some excuse to pick a fight, insist the only appropriate appeasement would be cities or land, then send out their subjects to go fight for them. The subjects would suffer and die, and maybe the king would get more land, and bragging rights… or he wouldn’t, so he’d angrily send forth more subjects to suffer and die. When kingdoms rose up against other kingdoms, it was never the kings who went into battle. At most they’d stand behind their troops and bark orders. But more often they’d have generals do that for them, while they stayed back home and coveted their neighbors’ wives. Very little risk on their part; life and death for their subjects.

And this, Jesus points out, is just part of life. Kings pick fights. Kingdoms rise up against other kingdoms. It’s what people do.

Ever since World War 1, humanity has tried its darnedest to make it so this is not simply something kings can do, and there need to be consequences to kings when they pull these stunts. But these efforts haven’t been all that successful—as demonstrated by World War 2 and every war since. Kings and parliaments and congresses still largely get away with it. It’s still what people do.

And it doesn’t mean it’s the End. None of our wars, no matter how huge they got, meant it was the End. The Roman-Germanic Wars, the Three Kingdoms War, the An Lushan Rebellion, the Crusades, the Mongol conquests, the Timurid conquests, the Spanish conquests of the Americas, the Ming-Qing transition, the Thirty Years War, the Taiping Rebellion, the World Wars, the Chinese Civil War—all the wars where tens of millions died, which still aren’t as many as the 200 million mentioned in Revelation Rv 9.16 —none of ’em have triggered the End, nor been a sign of the End. Though every time westerners saw these wars coming (or at least coming to Europe and North America; y’notice they never pay so much attention to the wars in east Asia, south Asia, Africa, or South America) they were mighty quick to bring up the End Times.

Kings versus “dominions.”

Since westerners have largely replace our kings with democracies, various “prophecy scholars” claim in order for the End Times to happen, we have to backslide: We gotta go back to the times of kings and kingdoms. Our democratic systems have way too many checks and balances to allow the Beast to run amok like their End Times timelines expect. They need the world to be more authoritarian, or far easier for one person to take over and ruin. You know, like the Roman Empire of John the Revelator’s day.

So they imagine the United States, the European Union, or the United Nations will have to give up all their ideas of democracy and global cooperation, and simply hand the world’s governments over to a single tribune… who’s either gonna go rogue ’cause it turns out he was the Beast all along, or the tribune’s gonna step aside and grant his powers to the Beast.

Now, despite the fascist tendencies of a lot of nationalists, we don’t really see democracies backsliding into kingdoms. Which is why some of the End Times prognosticators imagine the kings and kingdoms in their timelines won’t be literal kings and kingdoms. They’ll be powerful people who have just as much might as ancient and medieval kings and kingdoms. They’ll be billionaires and oligarchs—people who own great wealth, control mighty corporations, and have the power to manipulate governments and whole countries. Why be the king of only one realm when you have the wherewithal to control hundreds of them? That sounds way more Beast-like to them.

It’s an interesting idea. But is it what Jesus meant? Nah.

Again, today’s passages are not a prophecy of what’s gonna happen in the End Times, or what’s gonna trigger the End Times. It’s a statement of what’s not gonna start the ball rolling; of what’s gonna happen regardless. Of what always happens. There are always gonna be ethnic conflicts, kingdoms at war, natural disasters, recessions, and plagues. I’m not even 60, and I’ve lived through so many of ’em, my End Times punch-card is full; I think I’m supposed to get a free one.

Jesus isn’t talking about metaphorical kingdoms. He means kingdoms. Literal kingdoms. Started by literal kings who were alive at the time of the Olivet Discourse. Jesus’s students would live to see these battles—and this was their warning that these battles do not mean it’s the End. Do not mean the great tribulation was upon them. Still don’t.

And if you think some trade war between Apple and Google, Amazon and Jingdong, Starbucks and McDonald’s, Chase and Bank of America, or Toyota and Volkswagen, are even close to what Jesus means by kingdoms versus kingdoms, you’re just stretching a metaphor ridiculously past its breaking point. Not just because Jesus is speaking of first-century stuff; these companies’ “dominions” simply don’t compare to the violent bloodshed of literal kingdoms in conflict. A trade war is not a disaster. Heck, to most customers, it frequently means lower prices and higher wages and growing stock prices; it’s an economic blessing. Don’t be daft.